For many years, the relationship between organized labor and Ron Wyden has looked like a match made in heaven. Lately, though, labor has been doing everything short of throwing the kitchen knives at Oregon's senior senator.
The reason is Wyden's health care plan, which he's calling the "Healthy Americans Act." Unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), think Wyden's plan would squander the opportunity to enact meaningful reform of our pathetic health care system.
On a website it's put up (stopwydenshealthtax.com), AFSCME calls Wyden's idea a "health tax." That's a rhetorical gimmick, sort of like conservatives calling the estate tax "the death tax." But while Wyden's plan wouldn't literally tax health, it would tax health care benefits. And that - especially in a time of falling wages and rising layoffs - is not the way to go.
Beyond taking away the income tax exemption for health care benefits above a certain amount, Wyden wants to phase out all employer-paid health insurance. Supposedly, the money employers save by not buying insurance for their employees would go back to workers in the form of higher wages. With the extra money in their paychecks, employees would be required to buy their own private health insurance.
But with the median hourly wage for most occupations in Central Oregon hovering somewhere south of $30, what kind of private insurance are working families going to be able to afford? For example, the cheapest family plan offered by Clear Choice for a person between 35 and 39 costs $421 per month - and that's with a hefty $5,000 deductible.
And Wyden's bill contains some provisions that would make health insurance even more expensive. It would require insurers to accept everybody who applies, regardless of their health. And it would eliminate co-pays for preventive care or chronic disease management.
Wyden aide Josh Kardon has defended Wyden's idea by saying it's not fair for employees who have "Cadillac" health benefits to escape paying taxes on them. But it's not fair either to force workers who have Cadillac (or even Chevy) plans to give them up and accept the equivalent of a Yugo.
Probably worst of all, Wyden's plan offers no public insurance option to compete with private insurers - and therefore no real way of forcing the insurance companies to hold down costs or abandon their atrocious practices, such as delaying or denying payment of legitimate claims.
Basically, Wyden's measure would just perpetuate the private insurance monopoly. And that's something we can't afford to do. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party were given a strong mandate in 2008 to reform health care. If we throw that chance away, it could be 50 years before we have another one like it.
Wyden's plan has won praise because it holds the promise of getting bipartisan support. But bipartisanship is not the goal here. Getting good health care reform enacted is. Wyden's plan won't do it. It gets THE BOOT from us, and should get one from President Obama and Congress.